We assume creatures like crustaceans and caterpillars have no consciousness of that “thing:” we call emotion. How could they, after all? They are not human so how could they possibly possess a human characteristic like emotion? Yet we do not hesitate to ascribe to dogs the capacity not only to feel emotional ups and downs like humans, but to influence our emotions. Where, then, is the dividing line between consciousness, in the human sense, and simple existence?
Perhaps we believe only mammals are capable of emotion. But we tend to think of cats as cold and emotionless (at least I do), self-absorbed creatures capable of caring only for and about themselves. And what about goats and raccoons and anteaters?
Quite some time ago, I wrote a few comments about an experiment that suggested the possibility of plants responding to external stimuli (in the form of temperature or wounds) in a way akin to the way animal respond to pain. I had always assumed, as I think do most people, plants lack the physical structures necessary to feel pain. But that assumption is based on so many other assumptions that have no basis in known facts; our assumptions rely on our incredibly limited experience. The experiment gave me pause; just how myopic is my view of the world?
Our experience is based solely on our experience; we cannot experience the world around us as anything but ourselves. We cannot realistically hope to know how a dog or an otter or a dragonfly experiences the world. But, often, we behave as if we know how they see the world. Most of them, we believe, are automatons who experience the world entirely in instinctual reactions to both internal and external stimuli. Ants behave in biochemically predictive ways. Cardinals and pigeons fly through life in similarly reactive states; not thinking, but simply being. Or so we assume.
Why is it we have no compunction about killing a spider or a cockroach, yet we respond in horror when we hear about someone killing a kitten or a seal?
Somewhere in this confused jumble of thoughts on the consciousness of living things is a theory of life, but it’s just an embryonic idea that needs time to grow before attempting to crawl out of my head. I think an article by Micheal Gerson, sent to me by a friend, reviewing Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” may have nourished that seed of an idea.